Most of us experience it from time to time: the sense that our level of stress has exceeded our capacity for coping. People vary in their capacities to deal with stress, of course. Some people are able to soldier on through great difficulties without feeling beleaguered, while others – especially sensitive people – may find themselves responding with a high degree of emotionality to life’s ups and downs.
The feeling of being overwhelmed is more than an intellectual sensation. We experience this sort of stress in the body. The chest may tighten or muscles ache. Maybe we find ourselves feeling flushed, or our stomachs become queasy. The challenge for many people is that these physical sensations are so uncomfortable they add to the sense of anxiety, and the situation just gets worse.
What to do if you find yourself in this sort of place? Start by noticing what is going on in your body. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Deep, slow breathing triggers the body’s relaxation response. Consider getting outside to go for a walk to interrupt the buildup of discomfort and to change your surroundings – to literally change your point of view. And exercise may help build our capacity to handle stress.
Notice what you’re thinking. If you are worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and which might never happen, you’re borrowing trouble. Our minds often scan the horizon, looking for danger. While this is helpful in some situations, in others it most definitely is not. Notice if you’re becoming your own worst enemy.
Change what you can. Are there things you can do that would make the situation better? Sometimes confronting what’s worrying us is a practical way to ease our distress. If you’re worried about money, for instance, taking action is much more likely to reduce stress than avoidance.
Accept what you cannot change. Not every stressful situation is under our control. Some days it just rains and rains. That doesn’t mean life will always be a downpour, but it does mean understanding there is nothing you can do to stop a thunderstorm.
Know when to get help. If you are experiencing distress that has gone on for several weeks, or if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed on a regular basis, consider whether it is time to call for help. You may need to learn new ways of handling distress, or there may be patterns in your life that really aren’t working for you and which need to change.